Living in orchid time

Back in my prom-going days (half a century ago) the choices for providing flowers for one’s date were most often limited to reasonably priced and readily available stock: roses, daises, chrysanthemums and carnations. More exotic blooms like orchids were reserved for weighty affairs like weddings, their price being prohibitive for all but the most special occasion. In stark contrast, orchids have become commonplace today. Phalaenopsis, Cymbidia, Dendrobia and the like are widely available for purchase in sizes tiny to elephantine in colors both natural and enhanced. They sit nestled among plumbing fixtures in home improvement stores, alongside more conventional houseplants like philodendron, spider plants and tradescantia in grocer’s aisles and even show up prior to holidays in gas station convenience stores. As they have become widely available, their affordability has increased as well. Only a few cents more than a sawbuck will buy you a cute little phal in a four inch pot with a couple of blossoms and a promising bud or two while $15 will buy a dendrobium of seriously imposing size sporting dozens of flowers. The orchid’s popularity is due not only to its exotic appearance, but also to the flower’s longevity. It’s not uncommon for the blossoms on an orchid to last for upwards of several months, while purchasing one heavy with buds can mean six months or more of welcome and continuous blooming. In comparison to other popular houseplants this is an absolute bonanza of beauty. An African violet, for instance, whose flowers last at most for three weeks, can’t hold a candle to an orchid for long lasting decorative appeal. Until the blooming ends. My wife and I often have a recently purchased orchid placed prominently on our mantel, providing welcome color and cheer to an otherwise simple living room. In part this means that we have become slaves to a collection of orchids that stopped blooming months or even years ago. We have an impressive collection of orchids in stasis throughout the house – two or three broad leaves curled back from a center surrounded by serpentine roots that writhe above and around the clay pots in which they rest. Like our other houseplants, they are faithfully watered and fed according to their required schedules and are repositioned seasonally to take advantage of available light. However, unlike my African violets which dutifully provide a crowning cluster of flowers every four weeks or so in gratitude for the attention they receive, my old orchids just sit around requiring care but giving back nothing. Turns out that there is nothing in the plant world that is as inert as a spent orchid.  I confess that there have been times when I was ready to give up on an old orchid, having watered and fed it for a year or more but seeing no change other than the growing layer of dust on its leaves. I resolve to throw off the shackles of botanical obligation and trash it despite profound feelings of guilt that I am discarding a living thing, only to discover on my way to the compost bin a little green nub of a stem emerging from the center of the plant. Shouting “Keep hope alive!” I return it to a sunny spot on a window sill, excited that my patience is finally paying off. The shoot grows about as quickly as a canyon erodes. Three months later the stub has gained perhaps an inch in length. Despite glacial progress I stick with it and before a year has passed, buds form on the end of the stem. Another season passes, the buds open and I congratulate myself on having brought this lovely leech back to glory. I place it suggestively amidst eight or nine dormant orchids in hopes of spurring some competitive spirit, but they sit surrounding my triumph of gardening patience, impassive and unmoved. And I’ve learned that there is springtime and quality time and downtime and orchid time. When you’re in it, orchid time feels like forever. It won’t be rushed and it often proceeds at an inconvenient pace. Five years ago my wife bought me a small but truly magnificent Brassia with dramatically striped blossoms in tiger colors that sported long pointed “whiskers.” She must have acquired it toward the end of it’s blooming period because the flowers withered within a month of purchase. For the next two years I coddled it, tended it patiently, longing to see it burst into bloom. Finally, a small spike emerged from the center of the plant and I became excited at the thought that I would see these astonishing flowers again. The spike took months to grow,...

The Five Rejoices of Prayer

…with thanks to Loreena McKennitt, whose “Seven Rejoices of Mary” is required holiday listening in my home. Probably, not for everyone, but still… There is nothing more misleading in the popular perception of the Christian Faith than the practice of prayer. Church leaders of all denominations to urge their people to pray – to pray for the nation, to pray for an increase in kindness and tolerance among people, to pray for the sick and those denied justice, to pray for victims of disaster or oppression. The idea, I suppose, is that all those voices petitioning Heaven are likely to urge a fundamentally impassive God into action. But there is no pleasure in this kind of praying, no joy to be found in urging a distant God to conform to earthly will or desire. In truth, it isn’t praying at all, just a kind of hopeful celestial wishing. It’s lack of efficacy has never diminished its popularity, however. This kind of thinking about prayer hasn’t changed much since the earliest recorded beliefs about human interaction with deities. People have always sacrificed to their gods, prayed to them, sought their favor. There have been two remarkable shifts in religious thinking, however, as regards our relationships with the divine order. In the vast majority of ancient near eastern civilizations, polytheism was assumed and in most religious beliefs, the gods operated on two separate planes – the heavenly and the human. Gods in ancient civilizations had complex lives and adventures of their own some of which impacted human life in a “trickle down” manner. Those adventures, rhythmic in nature, explained the natural order of things like the regular cycles of fertility and seasonal change. If gods interacted with the human sphere at all, it was to maintain or restore the natural order which resulted from their adventures. When climatic disaster struck in the form of drought and resulting famine, people offered sacrifices to their gods to restore the divine pattern of things, urging them to a return to dependable order.* However, with the encounter of Moses on Sinai, a new idea about God emerges: that of a deity that is engaged with and responsive to the lives of humans. And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows (Exodus 3:7). While Israel’s religious beliefs asserted God’s dominion over the nations of the world, the primary relationship celebrated in the original covenant was that of God with the faithful of Israel and those who embraced Israel’s religious faith and practice. The establishment of the law and its interpretation emphasized the human behaviors required to maintain that relationship, a relationship referred to as righteousness. Here, for the first time in the ancient near eastern world, we have a concept of God whose primary function is the establishment and maintenance of a relationship with humans as that God’s beloved creation. But the teaching of Jesus expands the evolution of religious understanding further, for Jesus redefines the relationship of humans with God by placing the emphasis on the individual’s striving for sanctity through unity with God, rather than emphasizing God’s requirements for maintaining status as a member of a selected race. John the Baptist’s assertion that God could raise up children of Abraham out of stones (Matthew 3:9) constitutes a radical shift in focusing on divine engagement with a particular people to divine engagement with all people. Put simply, before Moses all talk of gods was about the gods. After Moses, all talk of God was about Israel. After Jesus, all talk of God in Christian thought was about humanity as a whole. But in the same way that Jesus’s insistence on the immanence of God has devolved in contemporary Christianity to the promotion of a members-only association, our understanding of prayer has become similarly reduced. Our thinking about prayer, having its ground in a shallow reading of the teachings of Jesus, seems to be primarily about wanting and getting, urging and convincing, making God aware of something that he or she didn’t realize or perhaps had forgotten. There are certainly Biblical precedents for such thinking from Moses horse trading with God about the number of righteous in the household of believers to the inability of apostles to cast out entrenched demons, their impotence ascribed by Jesus to an insufficient level of praying. However, the widespread and erroneous belief on the part of Christian people that the Bible says all there is to know about God rather than serving as an advertising primer for the deeper exploration of...

Old Armor

My wife and I so enjoyed the BBC/Starz production of The White Queen, based on the historical novels of Philippa Gregory, that I began a relative feeding frenzy consuming material about The Wars of the Roses: Thomas Costain’s monumental series on the Plantagenets, Al Pacino’s film Searching for Richard, Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, documentaries about the discovery of Richard III’s grave and the exploration of his limitations both physical and historical, even a visit to the Richard III Society’s website to learn more about the attempts to rehabilitate a sour reputation perhaps unjustly crafted by Shakespeare. Living in Britain in the mid 1400s was the political equivalent of navigating through a deadly house of horrors where the political ground beneath one’s feet was constantly shifting, the passions and intentions of the players driven by lust for advantage, the consequence of missteps or foolish alliances deadly. Lancastrians and Yorkists and Tudors all jockeyed for position, actions and allegiances colored by the influence and consequence of continental, specifically French, intrigue. The trappings of religiosity were ubiquitous: bishops and abbeys and anointing and papal endorsements, but precious little Christianity, at least as I understand Christianity to be. As I’ve explored the speculation and fact surrounding the era, a series of images kept occurring to me, no doubt a fiction in specific but likely true enough in concept: that of the aristocracy and landed gentry (titles, lands and privileges completely dependent on the tenuous hold of whoever wore the hollow crown), strapping on the old armor once again to attend to the skirmishes that characterized the pursuit of power by either the king of the hill or those who struggled to attain the summit. A few months or years of calm would occur as two kings and their courtiers plotted to consolidate power and advantage, then the call to muster would come again as the sides men chose demanded internecine combat. Unlike other battles in other places and times, the nobles frequently fared as badly as the peasantry, for while the tenants of an estate may have died in cobbled street or open field, their lords were often beheaded, the ultimate price for siding with the losers. St. Albans, Northampton, Towton, Tewkesbury, Bosworth – a bloody litany of places where old armor was strapped on to do battle once again. I am a child of the Sixties – that turbulent and unsettled decade when emerging yet untested values embraced by newly assertive voices in America clashed both ideologically and physically with a dominant culture that clung desperately to a clearly defined and comforting, if flawed, view of nation and world. The mantras sung by all participants echoed the songs of confrontation sung throughout the centuries: We must go forward! We must go back! It was a black and white time – the struggle for racial equality in those years was in many ways a metaphor for the character of our interaction as people –a time when beliefs and commitments and relationships were expressed in extremes and where positions of moderation were scarce. Perhaps the issues demanded “all or nothing at all” beliefs, perhaps that simply is the character of passion. A flawed President whose exercise of power was characterized by the strong arm called for reasoning together but, in truth, there was no reasoning. It was pressure and counter pressure, insistence and resistance. As a people, we were against one another, a house divided and antipathetic. Troops were withdrawn from a hated war, but only when another flawed President found it politically expedient to do so. Nobody really won the Sixties. We were more at the end of it, but we were also less. Concessions, both legal and cultural, were gained for some but attitudes and resentments were fired and grew among others. Mutual tolerance was the true victim of the Sixties as we began to see ourselves not as people together but as camps, holders of positions and ideologies intractable and inflexible, advocates of red roses or white. I suspect that the years ahead may be as turbulent as that troubled decade, not because of the election of any one political candidate, but because the national conversation surrounding the recent election has brought into sharp focus clear divisions among us as a population – differences that were present in other times and places, but became more clearly apparent more than half a century ago. Differences between both atmosphere and culture in that time and ours abound, and while one was neither better than the other qualitatively, the excesses of the current age have...

Heaven

Because someone I love asked, Late in the day, nearing five. Darkening. Wet streets from recent rain, glistening, reflecting street-, stop-, headlights in linear wiggles. People cowering in drizzle, hunched as though they can avoid the drops with shoulders stooped and head bowed, hands in pockets. A slight hop in their steps, not near a run, but quickening nonetheless. Days grow darker still, but with the lessening of light there is yet a promise ahead; a promise of smaller lights and larger gatherings, secrets and surprises, tissue paper and fripperies. The widening darkness, unwelcome and cheerless in itself, yet signals cheerful time ahead, a season of carefully crafted celebrations interrupting the unremitting pallor of winter. Refusing to yield when the darkest times arrive, we shift our mind to the brighter construct, drawing even closer to our love’s objects, filled with deep and silent satisfaction with our nearness to all we hold dear. I think it’s like that. After that, we cannot know, only hope, a hope shaped by our fear of loss, our desperate clinging to the certainty of our uniqueness and unrepeatability. I must continue in some form, we think. In that knowing and loving exist only through the experience of being a self, we hunger for the survival of those loves and acts that shaped all that went before. We hope that we will know and be known in a non-material state of clearly boundaried identity consistent with an enfleshed individual of a few decades’ passage through time. We hope that we are not disconnected from the lives of those still in transit, that we can urge the eternal and unknowable to intervene in the capricious and uncaring emergence of events in that little theater whose stage we have departed. We hunger for continuity between what we were and what we will be, for continued connection with the objects of our passion and adoration. We cling to the assertions of those who assure us that they see beyond the veil, the revived who floated at the end of a blue cord, the time of death weight measurers, believers who confidently describe heavenly rest supported by chapter and verse attributions. We want them to be authentically experienced, credible in their certainty, comforting in their promises. But in the quiet of the night, the depth of grief, the fear of end days, our doubting nags, the specter of nothingness lies close at hand. And we don’t know. We hope, we pray, but we don’t know. Science and human experience, however, provide us with some promises of certainty. Nothing that says, “bet the farm on it,” but a few assertions of truth that may point the way to interesting speculation. Our life energy, we are told, often dissipates into heat. Heat eventually departs from that which is heated, most commonly as a wave. Just about everything in the universe is a wave (which sometimes transmits as a particle). Light is a wave, sound is a wave, even the chair I’m sitting on consists of waves (albeit waves that are moving very slowly). Evidently everything that is (including, presumably, dark matter if they ever find it) is made of waves. Perhaps after we are freed from the confines of flesh we continue in wave form, and since waves can manifest in infinite ways, who knows what that might be like? While we have yet to produce a definitive definition of consciousness (although there are a number of fascinating attempts to do so), what we do know about the human mind is that the product of its electrochemical activity is a series of waves – delta, theta, alpha, beta. It seems that expressed through matter, we are still the stuff of waves. Our descriptions of interactions with the world around us translate into a language of connection based on our nature as wave forms enfleshed: we say that we resonate with someone, that we are in sympathy with a person or idea (sympathy being a state of response, e.g., oscillating magnetic waves being in sympathy), we speak of living harmoniously with others, or that our hearts beat as one. It turns out that rather than being impersonal, wave activity is at the very core of life’s expression and interactivity. Okay, it’s not pure science, but I always liked Jung’s postulation of the collective unconscious, although I find his definition somewhat limiting. Rather than being confined to individuals within a species, and rather than simply being a subliminal database of all experience within the species as well as archetypal representations, I would like to think that it is a dynamic, if elusive, level of connection with all living...

Fonzie and Faith

The descent of Arthur Fonzarelli from street smart and slightly shady supporting character into an outsize principal on the 1970s and 80s television comedy Happy Days may not be a nodal event in television history, but it is illustrative for my purposes in this essay. At the beginning of the show’s run, Fonzie was portrayed as the quintessential bad influence, a high school dropout shaped by his upbringing as the only child of a single parent family who was consigned for a time to foster care. Not quite Eddie Haskell, but close. In those pre-motorcycle jacket days, Fonzie was a gritty loner who danced on the edge of the dark side, a soon-to-be loser who felt most at home in the men’s room of a drive in hamburger stand. His was the questionable voice in Richie Cunningham’s Greek Chorus, a counselor who dispensed worldly advice born from hard knocks. He bore a hint of menace that, on at least one occasion, uncoiled into physicality in rescuing Richie from certain harm. But then he became popular with viewers and began to morph into a cartoon of his former self. In addition to gaining more significant script time, Fonzie was accessorized to reflect the viewing audiences’ stereotype of a 1950s hoodlum, absent the threat of hair trigger violence – a Wild Bunch Marlon Brando with a velour bunny soul. He quickly became something of an American icon. In a time of both domestic and international political instability, the eventual Fonzie was strangely reassuring, saying, in essence, not everything that looks dangerous actually is. While Fonzie continued to grow into an outsized character, his innate goodness and fundamentally non-threatening nature were developed more fully. He liked Ike. He reconciled with his estranged parents. He was an activist for the disabled. He became parental, offering both guidance and discipline for a young cousin. He was universally respectful of women and was drawn to mothering figures such as Marion Cunningham who calls him Arthur throughout the show’s eleven year run, as though she peers deeply through the carefully crafted personality that he projects into his true self. His presumed grandmother calls him Skippy. It’s hard to feel threatened by a Skippy. Essentially, Fonzie becomes every parent’s dream date for their daughters, absent the Halloween James Dean costume. In that transformation, he became something other than what he originally was. Not true to himself, but rather true to what we wanted him to be. Some would argue that characters must be allowed to grow, to adapt to the new realities of both the culture in which they are placed and the transformative power of self-discovery. I would agree. But I would also posit that Fonzie’s evolution was driven more by popular taste than his inner exploration. I’m not complaining. I liked Fonzie. So did you. So did everyone else in America, leading to his being named number four on TV Guide‘s Greatest Television Characters of All Time. But while what happens to a television character doesn’t matter at all, what has happened to Christianity does. I would argue that Fonzie’s growth into a bloated version of self is a perfect metaphor for the state of Christianity in the 21st century. Christianity started out as one thing and, over time, has become something else entirely. While it isn’t completely divorced from its original identity, it has developed in such a way as to make it almost unrecognizable to those who helped propel its popularity in the first century. It would take volumes to describe the manner in which those who claim the name these days distort the message, using Christianity to exclude, manipulate, intimidate, condemn and marginalize. It is a near-impossible task to analyze the ways in which institutions have attached onerous legislative, ceremonial, and obligatory accretions to the Gospel like weighty barnacles on the hull of a ship. Far too many contemporary expressions of Christianity are less like the Gospel than they are like the Gospel. And while there are some (like Marion Cunningham looking through the inflated Fonzie to the real Arthur underneath) that strive to stay consistent with the life of Jesus, a far greater number act out the last line of The Oak Ridge Boys song, Nobody Wants to Play Rhythm Guitar Behind Jesus – “It ain’t working out at all the way we planned.” Not that everything is bad with contemporary Christianity – there is plenty that is of value, just as there was a lot to like about Fonzie after he morphed into The Fonz. But, far too often, ignorant and ugly out shouts the lives of simple devotion that come closest to the mark....

The Death of a Spider

It turns out that Moses, Don and Juan, Lynyrd Sknyrd and I all have something in common: We all find that knowing something’s name puts us at greater ease than having to face the nameless. Two months ago, I gave a name to a spider with a particularly menacing appearance (aren’t they all?) who chose the exterior of my bathroom window as a construction site. Frank (seemed like a friendly name) hung dead center in the window next to my shower and every morning I watched his progress in weaving shining threads into a beautiful web that increased in complexity and scope daily. In two weeks, he appeared to have finished; I would step in the shower and notice that he sat, motionless, at the center of his web waiting patiently for other admirers to be drawn in by the wonder of gossamer. My showers increased a little in length (sorry, conservationists) as I examined and admired the span and beauty of the web. Looking at it from the outside of the house, I saw that it had a diameter of a good four feet, tied to my gutters at the top and the lower sill of a second story window, well above the reach of a broom should I decide to encourage my shower buddy to relocate. Frank Frank’s presence sparked some interest for me and I began to wonder who he was, exactly, what his habits were, and if he presented any real danger. Having spent a decade in New Mexico where spiders were deadly, it seemed reasonable to determine a threat level – should I be at yellow? Orange? Thanks to the Internet, I learned that Frank was a member of a mixed race group – Araneus Diadematus, a European mixed orb spinner. He and his extended family have become the most common orb spinners in the Willamette Valley (that’s wil-LAM-ette for you folks on the right side of the continent). As a rule, they are pretty inoffensive little bugs without much interest in biting humans. Whew. Familiarity permitted me to reach terms of accommodation with Frank. I allowed him to remain on the outside of the house and tolerated his attending my daily toilette. He remained an object of interest as long as we were separated by a double pane window. Turns out that Frank had neighbors. A closer examination of the north side of the house revealed that at least four other spiders, all looking pretty much like Frank, had taken up residence over the summer months. They had occupied corners or clapboards and had joined Frank in the waiting game. Since my back yard, filled as it is with fruit trees, bamboo and flowering vines, requires a good deal of maintenance, I spend plenty of time outdoors trimming, pruning, picking, and raking. I’ve developed an intimate familiarity with a wide variety of flying, stinging, biting and crawling insects in my yard. It seemed clear to me that Frank had an abundance of bugs that might meet his nutritional needs – a veritable smorgasbord of zipping, zooming, creepy crawlers were out there, ripe for the netting. Any ambitious bug hunter could fill their buggy larder with endless meal possibilities. But Frank was best at waiting. Every morning he sat motionless in the center of his threaded cathedral, waiting for a breeze to bring something by or for an errant buggy to trespass on sticky ground. For all his hard work and patience, I began to feel that Frank had chosen his location poorly – I never saw him capture anything and was unable to locate any little bug parts on the web that would indicate that he had gotten his supper. One misty morning (so rare here in the Pacific Northwest!), I watched him scuttle toward a water droplet that rested in the junction of webbed threads, consume the droplet and hurry back to center where he resumed a position of absolute stillness. Other than that, nothing. I wondered if Frank was luckier in the later parts of the day when I wasn’t showering and that our morning visits were down times in the bug eating business. While a chill in the morning air signals the approach of autumn, the afternoons here in Portland are still wonderful times of sunshine and selective warmth, so I spend as much time as possible outside stocking up on my share of beneficial rays before the unremitting gloom of winter arrives. The change in seasons doesn’t diminish the supply of flying insects, though. Some days walking through the yard seems almost like walking through snow flurries as tiny flying white things fill the air....

Back and Forth

I’ve spent the last few months going back and forth in my mind. I usually stay in the day (if not in the present moment) and rarely speculate more than two or three days ahead. By the same token, I rarely go back more than a day and then only to recall yesterday’s weight or any household tasks unfinished. Two months ago, however, I started to go back. I received a social media request to befriend someone I knew in high school. I always liked her, and was both surprised and cheered when she married a friend in my class immediately after graduation. Unknown to us, his friends, he had enlisted in the Navy and their wedding was planned before he shipped off to active duty. He was eventually stationed on an LST in the My Tho River where a North Vietnamese suicide mission left 30 sailors dead. His was one of the first names I looked for (but not the last) when I descended into the Vietnam War Memorial on the Mall in Washington. A place to kneel and cry. His widow eventually remarried, had kids and a wonderful life, I hope. I gladly accepted her friend request and she sent me a message saying that our High School class was holding its 50th reunion in October. She needed current contact information and hoped I could come. I didn’t think much about it initially as the reunion was being held 3,000 miles from my home in Oregon and attendance seemed unlikely. Still, her email sent me back. Truth be told, my memory of High School is highly selective. I can’t honestly say that I remember the content of any of my classes, but I remember teachers who were kind and those who, well…….lost the joy of engaging with teenagers? I remember the motto over our school’s entrance – To teach the art of living well – Seneca. I can still sing the Alma Mater (do schools even have those any more?) and remember word for word my performance of Harold Hill’s rant Ya Got Trouble from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. I remember the thrice-weekly dose of shame I received by not being able to climb the fracking rope in the gymnasium, task required at the beginning of gym class (everyone else went on to play basketball or kickball, while I hung pitifully a quarter way up the rope). I remember my Guidance Counselor’s attitude of disapproving resignation in telling me that since I wasn’t much of a student, my choices of college would be extremely limited. I remember being proud of our football team and embarrassed by our under achieving marching band, of which I was a suffering member. I remember people. Kids who seemed as adult as I felt, kids who coalesced into identifiable groups with boundaries of varying degrees of porosity. I remember Friday night dances and the thrill of leaving a secure place on the wall to nervously ask a girl to dance and having her say yes. I remember wanting to look okay, to be okay, and to have others acknowledge that I was okay. In other words, I was like everyone else. I began rehearsing names and faces, pleasures and wounds, friends and acquaintances I knew who had left this plane, hopefully for a state of eternal youth and do-wop on demand. An indefinable something began wrestling within me. A part of me wanted to keep all those folks firmly fixed in “as they were,” since their current reality would be as vastly different from my memory as I am from my mid-adolescence (in my case the differences may be minor, but there are some). On the other hand, the reunion is obviously a signal event, a milestone to be noted and observed even though the number 50 is not qualitatively different than 49 or 51. In the end, I made the decision to go as the trip could be coupled with a visit to my Philadelphia area family. My wife and daughter were excited about the prospect of going so they could connect with their old friends and our former places. We all anticipated acquiring items only available in the Delaware Valley – cheesesteaks, scrapple, hoagies, Herr’s chips and Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda. Dieting has begun in expectation. Still, there is a deeper reason to go. These are the people who helped shape my emotional life. They were my first real mirror for forming self image, an image that established an agenda for goals, ambitions, and relationships that followed. They were the ground in which I was planted and which helped determine my growth. And...